Climate Policy in Agriculture: Questioning New Zealand’s ‘100% pure’ Image



The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCCC) categories climate change mitigation technologies and practices into seven sectors – energy supply, transport, buildings, industry, agriculture, forestry, and waste. Agriculture is a vital sector, since it provides food for people, but at the same time release greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. These GHG emissions are: carbon dioxide (CO2) from microbial decay in soil organic matter; methane (CH4) from decomposed organic materials, particularly from fermentative digestion by ruminant livestock and stored manures; and nitrous oxide (N2O) which originate from animal excrement and from the use of nitrogenous fertiliser (Metz, 2007).

Globally, the agriculture sector contributes 10 to 12 per cent of total GHG emission (Metz, 2007). At the national level, New Zealand’s GHG emissions in agriculture contributed 47.1 per cent of the total emissions in 2010 (Ministry for the Environment, 2012). Between 1990 and 2008, the GHG emissions from the agriculture sector in New Zealand have increased by 9.3 per cent and the trend keeps rising. The increase in emissions of CH4 and N2O in New Zealand is caused by two main factors. First, the amount of meat and milk produced from individual animals has increased which means every animal consumes more food and hence produces more CH4 and excretes more N. Second, inorganic N fertiliser is used to support livestock productivity (Leslie, Aspin, & Clark, 2008). Therefore, reducing emissions in the agriculture sector is a challenge since this sector is one of New Zealand’s main economic drivers.

Another challenge is the fact that CH4 emission from livestock’s rumination has 25 times a greater impact in increasing global temperature than carbon dioxide (Solomon et al., 2007).  New Zealand has millions of livestock; each of them produces 84 to 123 kg of CH4 annually from rumen fermentation. This condition has made New Zealand one of the highest per capita CH4 emitter; almost 6 times compare to other OECD countries and about 10 times the global average (Ulyatt, Clark, & Lassey, 2002). For that reason, this essay evaluates New Zealand’s climate policies and measures in agriculture, especially in livestock.

Climate Change Policy

In its fifth national communication report to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the Government of New Zealand set two national targets to reduce GHG: (1) medium-term target of a 10 to 20 per cent reduction in emissions below 1990 levels by 2020, and (2) long-term target of a 50 per cent reduction in net greenhouse gases from 1990 levels by 2050 (Ministry for the Environment, 2009). In order to achieve those targets, the New Zealand Central Government has introduced some strategies, policies and measures. The principal strategy is channelled through the New Zealand Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), a market-based instrument which allows New Zealand to achieve its target by purchasing emission reduction units from other countries. ETS creates a financial incentive to reduce emissions through businesses’ and consumers’ behaviour change. Another strategy is conducted through range of policies and measures across five sectors; energy, transportation, primary industry (including agriculture), forestry and waste (Ministry for the Environment, 2009).

According to Barrow (1999) policy and measures could be categorised into 3 major approaches: advisory, economic/fiscal and regulatory. In term of GHG mitigation, some policy instruments options are – emissions taxes, abatement subsidies, tax-subsidy combination, emission trading, standards and restriction, and voluntary mitigation (Gerber, Key, Portet, & Steinfeld, 2010). There are 21 policies and measures implemented by various Central Government Agencies to mitigate GHG emission (Ministry for the Environment, 2009). Five out of 21 policies could be regarded as a regulatory approach as they contain standards and restrictions. Waste minimisation Act (2008) is an example of a regulatory measure since a person or institution that breaches the act could be fined. The other policies are either advisory or fiscal, or a combination of both.  The fiscal approaches include incentive, subsidies or grants which are widely used in the energy and transport sectors, such as exempting electric vehicles from road-user charges. Interestingly, the agriculture sector which contributes nearly half of the total New Zealand GHG emissions entirely relies on voluntary and advisory approaches after the sector was taken out of the ETS for an undetermined period. The key climate policy document on agriculture titled Sustainable Land Management and Climate Change Plan of Action (Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, 2007), is predominantly based on information and education, advice, research or even voluntary methods.

Agriculture and Climate Change

The GHG profile is unique in New Zealand as agriculture contributed 47.1 per cent or almost half of the total emissions in 2010, which increased 12.1 per cent from 1990 (Ministry for the Environment, 2012). The agriculture sector is New Zealand’s biggest industry and economic driver, and 39 per cent of New Zealand’s land is used for pasture. This represents 50 per cent of the total export earnings, mostly from dairy, meat and wool. The sector also absorbs 7.9 per cent of the total workforce, and contributes about 7.4 per cent of Gross Domestic Product (The New Zealand Treasury, 2013). These figures not only show New Zealand’s source of economic strength, but also their vulnerability to any small change in agriculture related policy. According to McDonald and Kerr (2011) any measure in reducing GHG emission in agriculture should be taken carefully. Otherwise, it will impact on economic gains and competitiveness in the international market. Furthermore, the New Zealand Treasury (2005) reported that any rigorous policy on GHG emission in agriculture will putt national economy at risk. Definitely, the economic driver is the main reason why New Zealand relies on the voluntary and advisory approach on its climate policy on agriculture. Consequently, there are raising concerns that New Zealand’s effort in mitigating GHG emission, specifically in agriculture, is lacking in comparison to other countries (Wilson & Melhuish, 2007).

New Zealand avoided applying stringent climate policy on agriculture due to uncertainty over mitigation impacts on the economy, uncertainty over methods to measure emission reduction action by individual farmers and the lack of low cost practical technology to reduce emissions (Cooper, Boston, & Bright, 2013). New Zealand’s doubtfulness was shown on the recent amended Climate Change Response Act (2012), which does not define the start date to surrender the agriculture emissions. This is a setback in comparison to the previous amended act which obligated to surrender the agriculture emission in 2015 (Climate change response amendment act, 2008). A strong opposition to ETS came from Federated Farmers; a network of farmers from 24 provinces and seven industry groups with has over 26,000 members. Federated Farmers argued two principal conditions should be met before agriculture is entered into ETS: first, other countries/competitors are taking sufficient action or have similar schemes; second, appropriate and efficient technologies option to reduce GHG emission is available (Ministry for the Environment, 2013). If ETS is applied before these conditions are met, the price of New Zealand’s agriculture produce will increase and the industry will relocate to other countries where farming is less carbon efficient. This carbon leakage is not only damaging New Zealand’s economy but also increasing global agricultural emissions. The farmers’ arguments are supported by academic researchers, such as Hugh McDonald and Suzi Kerr (2011, p. 15), who have reviewed various policy option and concluded, “our response will also need to be easily up- or downscaled: we need to be able to alter the intensity of our response in reaction to the seriousness of climate change and other countries’ responses.”

The argument that other countries do not take appropriate measures on their agriculture emissions is not completely true. In fact, the average agriculture emission from developed countries has decreased about 12 per cent during the period of 1990 to 2005 (Metz, 2007). Most OECD countries have been implementing various policies and measure to reduce agriculture GHG emissions. The European Climate Change Programme promotes cost effective GHG mitigation by using appropriate fertilizer and installing biogas to reduce livestock CH4 emissions (Metz, 2007). Denmark has been able to reduce GHG emissions through enforcement of technology standard in manure management (Gerber et al., 2010). The Canadian Government, through the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) has allocated 21 million Canadian dollars to support the Greenhouse Gas Mitigation Program for Canadian Agriculture (GHGMP) (Metz, 2007). Manure management with government subsidises are being practiced in the United State as part of the US Global Climate Change Initiative (Gerber et al., 2010). However, some countries, mostly non-annex 1 states, are still struggling to balance their food security, economic development and obligation to reduce emissions. The challenge with this uneven effort presents difficulties in comparison under certain market-based instruments, for instance ETS (Cooper et al., 2013).

Though New Zealand is considered as a leading country on climate change mitigation and adaptation (cf., Reisinger, Wratt, Allan, & Larsen, 2011), slow policy uptake into action has shown the vulnerability, complexity and uncertainty of the issue. Despite of the lack of government action, the voluntary and advisory approach on agriculture climate policy has triggered communities and a number of farmers to take action to decrease the carbon footprint collectively as well as individually. Strong support and pressure arises from community groups. Non-governmental organisations such as Greenpeace are actively involved in awareness campaigns, spreading the message about the risks of agricultural emissions and climate change. New Zealand Landcare Trust and the Carbon Farming Group provided practical information to farmers to reduce the carbon footprint (McDonald & Kerr, 2011). Health professionals urged New Zealand to take immediate action to reduce GHG emission, especially on agriculture (Metcalfe et al., 2009). As Metcalfe et al. (2009) argued, some health benefits are associated to the reduction of GHG emission, for example 116 deaths could be avoided annually, and an economic savings of approximately $193 million per year. Additionally, some stakeholders in agriculture have started to address agricultural emissions outside of the ETS system. For example, Pastoral Greenhouse Gas Research Consortium (PGgRC) has received substantial funds from the agriculture industry to investigate methods that will reduce emissions per unit of product (McDonald & Kerr, 2011). Nevertheless, the voluntary approach is not binding to the entire agriculture industry, which opens the possibility for some to get a free ride.

In relation to institutional management, the Ministry for the Environment is responsible for coordinating national climate change policy in the agriculture sector with the Ministry of Primary Industry (previously Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry). The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (previously Ministry of Research, Science and Technology), is responsible in managing funds for research and providing policy advice. These ministries contribute to the development, implementation and monitoring of policies and measures related to agriculture. The research foundations and initiatives for science and technology contribute by producing knowledge and technology. In addition, local government (regional, district and unitary) regulate resource use within their respective area and ensure compliance with the environmental, social, cultural and economic well-being of communities (Ministry for the Environment, 2009). Furthermore, two partnership groups, the Peak Group and the Agriculture Technical Advisory Group, have been established to provide strategic advice to the policy development (Ministry for the Environment, 2009). This strong institutional arrangement and coordination is supposed to be able to impose stronger policy rather than simply voluntary and research approach. On the contrary, as these partnership groups are consisted of various actors, including agriculture industry representatives, it became a “lobbying groups” that convey certain interest to influence ministries’ policy decision.

As stipulated under Sustainable land management and climate change Plan of action (2007), research is one of New Zealand’s strategies to mitigate and adapt climate change in agriculture. The research is conducted through various scheme and initiatives. Not less than 175 million dollars is channelled to research centres and projects in agriculture, such as the Global Research Alliance on agriculture greenhouse gasses, The Pastoral Greenhouse Gas Research Consortium (PGgRc), and New Zealand Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Centre (NZAGRC) (Ministry for the Environment, 2009). To date, there have been many achievements. The PGgRc scientists, for example, have mapped the genetic sequence of a microorganism called methanogens that produces CH4 from the rumen of cattle and sheep (Leahy et al., 2010). Based on this research, Buddle et al. (2011) proposed “methane vaccination” to alter the methanogens in rumen and impair the CH4 formation. Other scientists suggest diet modification through low CH4 forage crops (Clark, Kelliher, & Pinares-Patino, 2011), and reduction of fertiliser use in grass (Goh, 2011). Nevertheless, the solutions that have been developed at laboratory level remain uncertain until their effectiveness has been proved at the larger scale and economically viable (Leslie et al., 2008).

In conclusion, there are significant challenges and opportunity for reduction of GHG emission in agriculture. In order to effectively implement, policies and measures must overcome economic barriers, for instance limiting associated costs to farmers. The economic barrier is closely related to the availability of appropriate and low cost mitigation technology. However, it is suggested that New Zealand’s climate policy should not be dictated by other countries’ effort in reducing agriculture emissions. Therefore, the strategy of investing substantial funding to climate and agriculture research is seen as the best approach. Unless these economic and technology constraints are well addressed, the agriculture’s private sector will maintain their political influence that may hamper New Zealand’s “100% pure” image.



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